Exploring the USA by road is definitely one of the best ways to experience everything this incredible country has to offer. From exploring a state like California, to taking a classic road trip like Route 66, or just thoroughly exploring a section of the Pacific Coast Highway – hitting the open road in the US is a thoroughly rewarding experience.
It’s by far our favourite way to explore the country, and we’ve done thousands of miles of driving in the US, including Route 66, the Oregon Trail, and the Deep South.
I personally also love driving in the US. It’s a really car friendly country, with big, well maintained roads, clear signage, and no shortage of places to visit.
That said, coming from the UK, there are definitely a few things I’ve had to learn in order to have the best driving experience as a Brit in the US. Luckily I have an American wife who is used to driving in the US to help me (e.g, yell) when I am doing something wrong!
In today’s post, I’m going to share what I’ve learnt from numerous driving experiences in the US, generally from the perspective of a UK driver, but these tips should come in handy for anyone who is driving in America for the first time, or just wants a reminder of what driving in the US is like.
Table of Contents
Tips for Driving in the USA
These tips for driving in the USA should all be useful to anyone coming to drive in the USA – even if it’s not your first time doing so.
They’re not in any particular order, so do read them all to be sure you have a good handle on them, as many things about driving in the USA are different compared to other countries you may have driven in.
One of the first things to be aware of with the USA is that there are generally two types of law – federal laws, which apply to the whole country, and state laws, which vary depending on the state you are in.
The majority of traffic laws are set at a state level, which means that they vary depending on the state you are in – things like speed limits, age limits and drink or drug driving laws.
Some things are country wide of course. All traffic for example drives on the right (with the exception of the US Virgin Islands), you need a driving license to drive, and there are speed limits on all roads, although these vary by state.
Age Limits for Driving in the USA
The age at which you are legally allowed to drive alone on a full driving license in the US varies by state, but falls between 16 and 18 years of age. Here’s a full list of legal driving ages by state.
As a visitor, you will generally find that most car hire companies will require you to be over 21 to rent a car, and there is usually a surcharge for renting a car if you are under 25. See more below on this subject in the car rental section.
As with every country, there are some basic rules for driving that you need to observe. These are:
- Drive on the right hand side of the road (except in the US Virgin Islands!)
- Observe all posted speed limits.
- Don’t drive if you are over the legal blood alcohol limit, in all states this is a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent. Penalties vary by state, but basically, you don’t want to do it.
- You must stop at all STOP signs (see below for more information on STOP signs).
- You must stop for stopped school buses with flashing lights and a stop sign (more below on school buses).
- At least the driver and front seat passenger must wear a seat-belt – see below for more on seat belts.
Like nearly every country in the world, the US uses traffic lights to control traffic. Lights can be red, yellow or green. These colors mean:
- Red – stop. As you would imagine, red means stop, and must stop at a red traffic light. There will be a line on the road marking where you should stop if you are the first car to arrive at the light – otherwise you just stop in line behind other waiting traffic. Note that in some situations you are allowed to proceed after stopping, even on a red light – see “turning on a red traffic light” below.
- Yellow – you must come to a stop at the stop line. If you are moving too quickly to safely stop, for example you are about to cross the stop line and the light turns from green to yellow as you approach, you may proceed, however if you can safely stop it is advisable to do so and not try to “beat the light”.
- Green – proceed. The light goes from red directly to green, at which point you may continue. If a light is green as you approach it, you may continue to travel, although be aware that if it changes to yellow you are required to stop unless it is unsafe to do so.
Speed Limits in the USA
Speed limits vary by road and state, so there’s no one-size fits all answer here. Speed limits are in miles per hour, and some roads have posted minimum speed limits as well as maximum speed limits that you have to obey. Limits vary from 15mph all the way up to 85mph on one rural road in Texas.
The best advice is to follow all posted speed limit signs, and learn what the usual limits are for different road types and locations in the state or states you are driving in. For a full breakdown of speed limits by state, look at this list.
Hiring a Vehicle in the USA
If you have a full valid license from your home country, then you can hire a vehicle in the USA, although there are some restrictions to be aware of.
In the majority of states, there is no legal requirement for a hire company to rent you a car, and they are at their discretion as to who they rent to.
Nearly all hire car companies have minimum age restrictions and will charge a fee if you are under a certain age – the majority of companies charge extra if you are under 25, and most will not rent to you if you are under 21.
In addition, if you are under 25 you might find that you aren’t able to hire the more high-end car models. There is usually no upper age limit, however if you are over 70 it is worth confirming that this won’t be a problem.
To hire a vehicle, you will usually need to use a credit card to pay for it, and many companies will place a hold on your card for a fixed amount, to cover them in the event of accidents. Our tip would be to find a credit card that includes liability cover and accident cover for car rental, so you can avoid the very high fees that rental car companies charge for this service.
Alternatively, if that’s not an option, you can take out third party insurance which offers the same type of cover at a fraction of the cost – read more about that here.
You may also have car rental insurance attached to your own car insurance policy at home so check that as well to see if it would cover a rental car in the U.S. Note that if you do have full coverage via your credit card or own insurance policy, you have to decline coverage by the rental car agency to be able to use your insurance in most cases. Be clear in how you are covered and where!
You will also need a full and valid drivers license. Some rental car companies will require this to be in English, so if your license is not issued in English, you may need either an International Drivers Permit or a certified translation of your original license, both of which you will need to obtain prior to leaving your home country.
If your license is not in English, we’d recommend getting the International Drivers Permit even if it is not required as it will also be helpful if you get pulled over or there are any other issues while driving.
Personally, I rented a car using a French drivers license in the USA and the hire companies I used generally did not need to see an English translation, however, check the rental conditions beforehand to be sure. For more on the IDP, see here.
If you are looking to hire a vehicle, we recommend that you take a look at Rentalcars.com to compare car hire deals across a wide range of different providers, including the biggest names in the business, to get a great deal for your trip.
We have also often used and can recommend Enterprise, we generally find that they come up with the best deals when we’re looking to hire a car – especially for one way trips – in the USA.
Finally, if you want to rent out a campervan or similar, we recommend starting with Motorhome Republic, who compare prices across a range of providers. See their USA listings here.
We can also recommend you check out RVShare, who offer peer to peer campervan rental – a bit like the AirBnB of RV rental.
Road Types in the USA
The US has a number of road types. These, in our experience, can be broadly categorised as follows:
As the name suggests, an Interstate is a road that runs across states. These can be compared to Motorways in the UK, or the autobahns in Germany. They are usually at least two lanes, and they have on and off ramps rather than stop signs or traffic lights.
Interstates keep the same number regardless of state – Interstate 40 for example, runs through eight states, and is called Interstate 40 in all of them.
Maximum speeds on the Interstate vary by state, from 60 mph through to 80 mph. Speed limits are clearly posted and should be obeyed.
A State Road is specific to a state. State Road 54 in one State is going to be a different road to a State road in a another state.
State roads vary from dual-carriageway styles through to single lane highways, and as they pass through towns, cities and villages, the speed limit can vary from as low as 20 mph up to 75 mph. As always, check local state regulation and obey posted speed limits.
A county road is any road that is maintained by the local county authority, rather than the state or federal system. County roads are usually smaller, slower roads, and they have a “C” or “CR” designation, followed by a number.
They do vary in size and quality, from freeway sized right through to unpaved roads, depending on the area, traffic, and local county budget. Again, as they vary hugely in quality and size, speed limits on County Roads also vary tremendously.
Stop signs were a source of much confusion as I got to grips with driving in the US. Not so much the stopping, which is obvious, but the way that at road intersections, the STOP signs are used to dictate traffic priority.
It seems easy in principle. If two road intersect, there are four “entrances” and four “exits” to the intersection. In the UK, this would be handled with either a traffic light or a roundabout. In the US, the way it works is that if multiple vehicles arrive at the STOP intersection, priority is given to the first vehicle that arrives.
This is only the case if it’s an “all way” STOP, i.e., all the entrances to the intersection have a STOP sign. Sometimes, this is not the case, meaning you have to give way to all through traffic.Sometimes this can be tricky to tell, and you have to look carefully to see what kind of STOP intersection.
In the majority of cases, the STOP sign will be clearly marked to say it is an all way (e.g., 4-way) STOP, or if cross-traffic does not stop.
If it is a busy four (or even five!) way STOP, it can initially be a little tricky to keep track of who arrived when, but with a bit of practice you get the hang of it. If in doubt, wait a bit.
One last thing to be aware of is if you arrive at the same time as another vehicle or vehicles. In this case, the vehicle on the left has to give way to the vehicle on the right. In all cases, I’d advise being cautious, and pulling out slowly just in case, even if you are sure you have right of way!
Turning On Traffic Lights
One of the more unusual, but quite logical when you get used to it, rules in the US, is that you are allowed to turn right on a red traffic light, unless there is a sign specifically telling you not to.
Sometimes there will be a right turn only lane, which you must use to turn if it is there. If the light is red, you must behave as if it is a STOP sign – approach the stop line with your turn signal on, stop, check for traffic, and if it is clear, you may turn right – giving way to any pedestrians who have the right away.
This is the sort of rule that can really catch out new drivers in the US, as it generally goes against everything you will have learnt in your home country, with a red light meaning not to go. However, it is important that you remember and adhere to it, as on a busy turn, if you forget to go, the traffic behind you might become quite irate that you are not following the rules of the road!
Note that this rule does not apply in New York City. Turning on a red light in New York is only allowed if specifically indicated, otherwise it’s illegal. However, we’d advise against driving in NYC anyway – we have a great guide to getting around New York that will give you plenty of options.
Passing Other Vehicles
Passing another vehicle works much the same as in other countries around the world. You are allowed to pass on a normal road if there is a broken line (yellow or white) down the middle of the road and it is safe to do so.
On multi-lane highways, slower traffic should stay on the right, and faster traffic should pass on the left. You should generally only use the fast lanes for passing, and otherwise always keep right.
In my experience, especially on the wider highways (10 and 12 lanes wide), the rules become a little less clear. In some states, on highways with more than two lanes on each side, you are legally allowed to pass on either the left or the right side. This means that if you are not driving in the far right lane, you have to be aware that faster traffic could pass you on either side.
In my further experience, I’ve observed drivers passing on both side even when there are only two lanes in either direction. My advice is to try to only pass on the left if possible, unless you are absolutely sure it is legal to pass on both sides in the state you are in. Here’s an overview of which state has which law regarding passing on the right.
Interstate Exit Numbers
Here’s a tip that flummoxed me for a while coming from the UK. In the UK, exit numbers on the motorways are sequential, so Exit 2 follows Exit 1, and so on.
In the USA, Interstate exit numbers are often based on the number of miles you have travelled along the Interstate. If you pass exit 280 for example, and the next exit is ten miles along, it will be exit 290.
This makes quite a lot of sense, and helps you see how far the next exit is easily, but did confuse me for a while as I was expecting sequential numbers and figured I was just missing exits! It was quite the revelation when Jess pointed this out to me after weeks of driving in the U.S.
Note – a reader in the comments pointed out that some states do have sequential exits. So just be aware that either is an option!
Buying Petrol / Gas
The great majority of cars in the US, especially rental cars, use unleaded petroleum fuel, and this is usually referred to as “unleaded gas” or just “gas”. Diesel is available, but is generally reserved for trucks or larger vehicles, so most fuel pumps in commercial gas stations don’t have it as standard.
Be sure to check before you leave the rental car agency to know what kind of fuel your car takes (unleaded or diesel) and be sure to note if it requires a certain type of unleaded, for instance some may be designed for premium unleaded petrol with an octane rating of 97 or higher.
Buying fuel is, in most cases, a fairly straightforward process. Nearly every machine has a credit card/debit card reader, and you just pre-authorise the card, fill up the tank, and your card is billed. Fuel stations like this often provide fuel 24 hours a day although the office will close.
There’s no need to go inside and see the attendant unless you want to pay in cash, or you wish to pay with your card inside. If that’s the case, you have to specify an amount up front with the attendant, pay that amount, and then you can fill up. If you have overestimated the amount you need, then you can get change for cash payments by returning inside, or it will be re-credited to your credit card.
It is generally easiest to just use the credit card payment option at the pump. However, even if you have a credit card, you may be required to enter a zip code at the pump (the one attached to your credit card billing address) and this generally won’t work if you have a foreign address so you may need to use cash in these cases.
It’s worth noting, as pointed out in the comments, that in some states you aren’t allowed to pump your own gas. In these states, such as Oregon, there will be a filling attendant who will ask you how much gas you want, and handle filling it for you. They’ll also usually handle payment. Note that tipping is not expected in these gas stations.
Do be aware that petrol prices vary wildly from state to state, and if you are driving across multiple states, you might want to check to be sure it’s not worth crossing a state line to get cheaper gas. A website like this can definitely help you save money, also available in app form.
As previously mentioned, the legal limit for blood alcohol content is 0.08% in the USA. Unfortunately, there is no fixed amount of drink that gets you to that limit, because there are a huge number of factors on an individual basis, from weight and height to metabolic rate and gender – even to what you’ve eaten that day.
Basically, it’s way easier not to drink at all rather than run the risk of being caught for driving while over the limit. In many states, if you’ve been drinking at all, even if you’re under the BAC limit you can still be charged if the officer feels you are impaired.
You can also be charged in many states if you have passengers under 21 for any amount of BAC.
The majority of states in the USA require car insurance. There are two main types of insurance: liability insurance and collision / damage insurance.
Liability insurance covers other people and their property if you have an accident – so if you drive into someone else, then the insurance will pay for the damage. Collision / damage insurance covers you for damage to your vehicle.
The insurance that nearly every state requires you to have is liability insurance, with collision / damage insurance generally being optional.
Here’s an overview of the levels of insurance you will require per state to get you started, as well as further explanations of required coverages. If you are driving a rental car, it is best practice to have both types of insurance as damage costs can be astronomical!
Here’s another one that caught me off guard the first time I visited the USA – the rules around school buses are remarkably strict. You’ll easily recognise most school buses from their bright yellow paint, with most of them clearly marked as such.
What you might not have known is that when a school bus is in the process of picking up or dropping off passengers, all vehicle traffic must come to a stop. When the bus is stopped, big “STOP” signs will pop out of it (on most buses), and it will flash red lights.
At this point, all traffic, including oncoming traffic (unless there is a a separated roadway), must stop and wait for the bus to complete its operation and move on.
These rule can vary slightly by state, with different guidelines on how far from the bus you must stop as well as other details – the best option is to check the rules per state. Here’s an overview to get you started.
Mobile Phone Use
This should be pretty obvious – don’t use your mobile phone when driving! It’s incredibly distracting and dangerous, and really isn’t worth it. Also tickets can be very expensive.
Of course, the legal landscape is a little different to my opinion. Some states don’t allow any hand-held cell phone use when driving, others forbid texting and internet use, whilst permitting phone use, other have no restrictions at all.
Here’s a full run down state by state of all the laws – I expect this to update as more studies come out demonstrating the dangers of driving and mobile phone use.
Driving with Children in the USA
If you’re driving with children in the USA, then you’re going to have to be aware of even more rules. Yay! Let’s take a look at these:
- Safety Belts & Car Seats. Nearly all the states have specific laws regarding child constraints, which vary depending on the size of your child. In most states, you will need to be using either a child safety seat, a booster seat, or an adult sized seatbelt for your child, depending on your child’s weight. Some states also regulate the positioning of the car seat or booster seat, such as it has to be in the back seat or should be forward or rear facing. Here’s a full breakdown of the legal requirements by state.
- Smoking in the car. It is not generally illegal to smoke in a car with a minor present in the USA, although some states have either implemented or are testing such a ban. For a list of these locations, check here. However, note that many rental car agencies in the U.S. do not allow smoking in their cars or charge a mandatory cleaning fee for smoking.
What To Do If You Get Stopped By The Police in the US
In a worst case scenario, you will commit a traffic violation and be stopped by the police. You can be stopped for a variety of reasons, including driving over the posted speed limit through to dangerous driving and lights on your vehicle not working.
If you are being signalled to pull over by a police vehicle, which will usually be fairly obvious as it’ll be right behind you with flashing lights, you should pull over as soon as it is safe to do so.
When your vehicle comes to a stop, you should remain in the vehicle, with your hands on the wheel and your seatbelt fastened. You should open your driver side window and if it is dark, turn on the vehicle’s interior lights. Do not get out of your vehicle or unfasten your seatbelt. Remain seated and wait for the the officer.
I have to admit that I was stopped once in the US for going over the posted speed limit. In my defence, we had just arrived in Yosemite National Park, the scenery was stunning, and the speed crept over the limit as we coasted downhill without me paying attention to it.
Unfortunately, the park ranger behind me was paying attention to my speed, so he pulled me over very quickly. Jess was not hugely impressed with me either.
When we stopped, the ranger came up to the car and asked if he knew why he had stopped me. To be honest, the best response in this instance is to say that you don’t know, because otherwise you’re incriminating yourself. Since I wasn’t that clever, I asked if I had been going too fast.
This was affirmed, and I was then asked various questions, including providing my driver’s license, vehicle registration and ID (as I am foreign I was obviously driving in the USA with a foreign license).
I was also asked if I had been drinking or had taken any drugs, and if there were any weapons in the car. The answer was truthfully no to all these.
Thankfully, in my case, the ranger chatted cordially with me about why I might have been going too fast, and my confession of being distracted by the scenery on the downward slope was enough to get me out of a ticket. Note that since we were on a U.S. federal property, fines and violation penalties are often a lot higher, which is also the case for construction zones. I was very lucky!
You might not be so lucky, in which case, your best option is to remain polite, and if you feel the ticket was unfair, you can contest it in traffic court later. If you know you were in violation, you can just pay it and move on so you don’t end up with a record.
Finally, for lots more information on how to behave when pulled over in a vehicle, your rights, and what to do if you are for some reason arrested, take a look at this article.
Final Tips for Driving in the USA
My final words on driving in the USA are not to forget why you are there in the first place – most likely to see some scenery and enjoy the views. So just take it easy, don’t rush, and enjoy yourself.
Try to limit your driving to the daylight hours so you can enjoy the scenery, pick some fantastic road trip music to accompany you, and have a great time!
Further Reading and Information on Driving in the USA
Whew! Well, that was a lot of words to hopefully help you get started. Of course, I can’t cover everything in just one post, so here are some helpful resources to get you on your way:
- The US Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has a comprehensive list of road rules, traffic signs and signals and more, on a per state basis, available here.
- The US government has a page specifically on driving tips for visitors.
- You’re also going to want somewhere to drive! Here’s some inspiration to help you:
- We have a guide to a USA Deep South Road trip itinerary, which includes New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Savannah
- We have a two week California road trip itinerary, as well as a guide to driving the Pacific Coast highway
- And of course, we have a full guide to Route 66, as well as photos from every state along the route, a detailed route 66 itinerary for two weeks and a 1 week Route 66 itinerary
- We have lots more content on the USA as well – check out the USA section of the site for more resources.
- Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out our guide to the world’s best road trips for more ideas!
- If you’re looking to plan your budget, check out our guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA
- Finally, if you want a book to read, check out this guide to 300 of the best Scenic Highways and Byways in the United States for some inspiration.
Please note that this blog post is for guidance only and should not be taken as any form of legal advice. Check local state and federal laws before driving in the USA to be sure you are safe and legal.
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Eve Mitchell says
Thanks for mentioning that the exit sign numbers are actually placed based on miles apart. I had no idea that was the case!
Laurence Norah says
It’s my pleasure Eve, glad to be able to help out!
Great article. A tip on the zip codes thing: use the numbers from your postcode followed by zeros to make up to five digits. So eg AB12 5RX becomes 12500.
Laurence Norah says
Thanks, and that is a good tip, appreciated!
Hello, I hope to do a road trip though North Dakota, my question well one at the moment, is when you get petrol are the gauges different colours like here in Australia?
Laurence Norah says
Apologies if I’m not understanding the question properly. Do you mean that the different type of fuel have different colours on the pump? Like diesel has a yellow handle and petrol has a green handle for example?
If that’s the question, then they answer is yes. The petrol is sold at different octane levels and that’s clearly marked on the pump and usually the pump handles, so like 85, 87 etc. One main difference you’ll notice is that diesel isn’t a common fuel for consumer cars, so most stations don’t have diesel on the main pumps, it’ll be on a separate pump for the trucks, and it usually has a bigger nozzle that won’t fit in the car.
If this wasn’t the question, let me know and I’ll try again!
Thanks Laurence, that was the question, sorry I did not word it well. Thanks again
Laurence Norah says
No worries Jacqueline! Have a great trip to the USA, and do let me know if you have any more questions, I’m happy to help!
Levi Armstrong says
My brother runs a trucking company and was recently given a project to ship heavy equipment across statelines. It’s great that you mentioned the different roadworks around the country, showing different rules and requirements. We recently found out that for him to ship the equipment he needs to get an overweight permit to use the highways, so I’ll show this with him in the hopes that it could be insightful. Thanks!
Laurence Norah says
My pleasure Levi, thanks for stopping by!
Cody Richard says
Thank you for dropping this article. It almost covers all important laws that someone who is not a native USA citizen should know but don’t know. It can get confusing too as laws change from state to state, but this article helps.
Laurence Norah says
Deidra Rapp says
You didn’t mention that Oregon and I believe New Jersey generally don’t allow you to pump your own gas. In OR it varies by the size/population of the county. As a native of the USA I found this article interesting. I agree that our laws are goofy! It’s pretty confusing at 4 way stops, especially with pedestrians thrown in, and the fact that most people just jump their turn. 🙂
Laurence Norah says
That is interesting. I have driven in Oregon, and I do recall them filling the car for me but I didn’t realise it was a legal requirement! I have updated the post to note this – thanks for the feedback! I think the most confusing thing for me visiting the USA is that the laws are different from state to state 🙂
OK, Long and drawn-out question.
I want to spend a week in Montana, arriving in Whitefish on Amtrak and flying out a week-odd later from somewhere like Billings.
July/August/September period. Travelling alone. Renting a small car (possibly Alamo as they are showing decent relocation charges)
My Q relates to accommodation. I am happy with Motel-6 or Super-8, etc. What I’ve noticed is that they are showing USD120-140 on websites for that period. But for next week (January) they are half that. I suspect that part of this is Winter in Montana (who would want to stay Motel-6 in winter?) But, would you recommend NOT pre-booking accommodation, rather to check where you want to be tomorrow and booking THEN? There’s a chance that I could find myself in a sold-out city if a major festival is on, but otherthan that unfortunate eventuality what are the chances of having to sleep in the car?
Laurence Norah says
So this is not necessarily an easy question to answer. You are definitely correct about the reason for the price difference, off season pricing is always going to be cheaper than the more popular times of year, that’s just a given. In terms of when to book – it depends on your personal approach to risk.
We do both last minute and advance booking when we travel in the US, and to be honest, unless as you say you visit during a major festival or other event, you should nearly always be able to find availability even last minute. One thing though, we generally find that it is rare for the walk-in price to be better than any prices shown online. We’ve often walked in, been quoted a price, found it’s cheaper on a site like booking.com, and had to book online to actually get that price as the desk clerk is not always authorised to give lower prices. I know this sounds weird, but that’s just how it is sometimes!
Anyway, in your case, I would likely just book a few days out. It would definitely be wise to check for your destinations if there are any events going on that might require more advanced booking, but otherwise, a few days *should* be ok.
I hope this helps – have a great trip, and do pop back if you have any other questions and to let us know how it went 🙂
I am planning a maximum 4hr drive per day so that should mitigate risk by allowing a change of O/N venue
I recently did a cross country drive, and return, by myself and had not driven longer than a two hour interstate drive in thirty years. Everything went well and I returned home safely but here is what I learned or what I wish I had considered before doing the drive.
1. Don’t drive solo. Have a trusted friend come with you. You can switch off driving every few hours and can catch a sleep while your pal drives. You will still probably stay at roadside motels or rest areas every night but it will all be a lot more comfortable. Conversation also lightens the drive.
2. Rent a car instead of driving your own. My trip was 3800 miles round trip and it was 95% on interstate. I am glad the rental car took the mileage and wear and tear and not my own vehicle. If you shop around, weeks or months in advance, you can get good rates. I paid $557 for a fast, fuel efficient, full-size car for 9 full days and that included collision/damage coverage and roadside assistance.
3. Buy and study detailed maps of each of the states you plan to drive through. Maps on rental cars are not full of detail. And, depending on your phone plan, maps on phones do not always ‘appear’ correctly.
4. Start each day early (which means not driving too late the night before) and have some food before you start each morning.
5. Do not stay in the cheapest roadside hotels. Stay in one that will be quiet and give a good night’s sleep. This may involve spending over $90 a night including taxes and tourist fees. There are rest areas that allow overnight stays (not all do) and if it is not too cold then this can be an alternative. However, three or four nights of rest area sleeps can make you ugly and smelly.
6. If you are driving alone then stop every 4 or 5 hours for gas and food and walk around for a few minutes at the truck stop or restaurant to reactivate your body.
7. If you are driving alone make sure you have the music or audio entertainment you want and can use. Most cars now no longer have CD players. You are expected to plug in your phone or a USB drive, or attach your own CD player. You favourite music can really help soothe the long road hours.
8. Obvious but easy to overlook: the eastern US states have lower interstate speed limits than the west and they are not consistent. This is a nuisance but you have to pay attention to it.
9. Obvious but easy to overlook no.2: traveling east you lose an hour each day. You don’t really ‘lose’ it but in estimating your time and mileage to come you need to remember this. On the other hand when you go west you gain an hour each day which can be an extra hour’s sleep! (This assumes that you pass through a time zone each day).
10. Consider stocking a cooler with iced coffee and power drinks (and ice) on the back seat of your car. You will keep stopping for gas and sometimes food at the same time but a stocked cooler gives you more options for your stops and can really help if you run in to delays from accidents or construction.
Laurence Norah says
Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to share your detailed tips. I know that these tips are going to be really helpful for other readers planning a driving trip in the USA, and I really appreciate you taking the time to write it all out.
Some great advice here, thank you.
We are doing a road trip to the Keys and Everglades, and have been advised it is illegal to carry opened alcohol inside a car. Could you please confirm this?
Laurence Norah says
Thanks very much. You have heard correctly, as I understand it, Florida Statute 316.1936 prohibits a person from possessing an open container of alcoholic beverages in a motor vehicle. This includes everyone in the vehicle, and applies even if the vehicle is stopped. You can see the specifics here:
Hope this helps 🙂
PS – we are not lawyers or legal experts, so please do not take this as official legal advice!
Kate Brodhurst says
Great post and so much info. I am heading to the states at the end of this year. Picking up a car at SF and driving the pacific coast highway to LA then onto Palm Springs. My question is, the car in which I have hired comes with: Unlimited Mileage, Theft Protection, Loss Damage Waiver, Breakdown Assistance and Supplemental Liability Insurance. My travel insurance also has up to $5,000 cover for excess. The car hire company though is trying to get me to purchase additional Protection Plus which covers: Vehicle Damages up to AUD $10,000.00, Single vehicle accidents, Tyres, windows, windscreens, Undercarriage and roof damage, Third party damage, Towing and recovery charges, Lock out and key replacement, Miss-fuelling costs, Admin and loss of use, Weather related claims and Collisions with Animals. It is an extra AUD$110 for this. Im a little confused about the whole insurance thingy! Do I need to take out this EXTRA insurance or because my travel insurance has the $5,000 excess, would this cover me? I would appreciate any help with this. Can’t wait to read your post on the Pacific Coast Highway itinerary, Im sure it will give us plenty of ideas. Love your posts. Thank you so much. Cheers, Katie
Laurence Norah says
Thanks very much!
I am certainly familiar with the high pressure sales tactics that car rental firms use – this is after all how they make much of their profit!
Unfortunately it’s a bit tricky for me to be able to give a useful response because it will come down to the wording of the insurance, both that offered by your travel insurance, what is currently included by the rental car company, and the additions they are adding.
I know that most policies that come with the car do not cover certain types of damage, like damage to the underside of the vehicle. This is usually incurred if the car is used in a manner it’s not supposed to be used for, like going offroad. However, whatever insurance you have will still likely exclude that.
Normally the additional insurance that they sell you is to reduce the excess you pay, but this sounds like it’s covered by your travel insurance. To be honest, I normally don’t personally get the extra cover, as we also have a third party travel insurance which covers our excess. However, I can’t advise you on the specifics of your situation – you would definitely need to check with the rental company what specifically is included and excluded in the standard cover they are giving you. Normally it’s just a high excess that you need to get down in some way, but it sounds like they are trying to add lots more cover in, and you would need to check to see what the costs of those are, and if this is something your travel insurance covers.
Sorry I can’t be of more help – but have a great trip and I hope you get it figured out!
All interstate highways in all states use mileage for exit numbers. They start at 1 from west to east (like reading) and south to north (smallest number on the bottom). There will also be mile markers on the road so you know where on the highway you are in an emergency. Say you car breaks down. You call for service and tell them you are between mile markers 100 and 101 on I43 southbound.
Interstate highway numbers have a specific scheme. Even numbers go east-west, and odd numbers go north-south with the low numbers like mile markers in the south and west. For example, I43 is west of I55. I90 is north of I80. Sometimes the highways run on the same stretch of road for some miles suck as I39/I90/I94 in Wisconsin. 3 digit interstate highway numbers exist also, but only as a subset of a 2 digit highway. If the first number is odd, then the road goes through the city, and if it is even the it bypasses it. I294 goes around Chicago. I405 goes around LA. Something like I194 would go through the city.
The interstate signs are meant to look like the shape of the US. They don’t too much, but that is the intent. State roads signs are often the shape of the state, or something resembling it.
Laurence Norah says
Thanks very much for this information Sebastian, much appreciated 😀
We are holding Singapore driving licence and also, we had just gotten our licence this month. We will be travelling to San Francisco on November 2019, we would like to ask if we would be allowed to rent a car and drive on the road when we got our License for not even 1 year.
Thanks in advance!
Laurence Norah says
This is down to the policy of individual rental agencies, but I think that as long as meet the minimum age requirements, you should be able to rent a car even if you have not had your license for more than a year. For example I think Dollar, Alamo and National are all fine with it. However, if you are under 25 there will likely be a surcharge, and many rental agencies will not rent to you if you are under 21. If your license is not written in English, you might also need an International Drivers Permit, which you will need to obtain locally.
Having said all the above, please read the terms and conditions of any rental before booking! They vary from company to company and I do not know the exact specifics, so you definitely need to check before you pay for anything to be sure.
I found one inaccuracy in your post. In New York City it is illegal to make a right at a red light. Signs are almost never posted indicating this law- it is just expected that you know. NYC has an extensive mass transit system, tons of cabs, and terrible parking, so I would recommend that anyone visiting avoid renting a car, but still it’s worth pointing out.
Laurence Norah says
Hi Megan! I did not know that, thank you so much for letting me know. I’ll update the post now!
One item I did not see is the road rules for a funeral procession. A funeral procession of cars on the way to the cemetery, always have a small purple flag mounted on the out side of the car, usually on the roof or front hood. They usually have headlights on. Once a lead car in the procession crosses and intersection, the entire number of cars in the procession may proceed through the intersection even though the light has turned red for them and green for you. You must remained stopped until the procession passes. As a native, we are used to this but I cannot imagine how a foreign driver would understand this. Good luck!
Laurence Norah says
Good tip, thanks Ron! I’ve never encountered one of these processions, so good to know.
Great post! As a US driver I would add that if you see /hear an emergency vehicle with red and blue flashing lights, you must get to the right side if the road and stop. .Stay stopped until the vehicle passes. These will be either police or fire trucks. Even if the trucks are coming any direction — from ahead, behind, the crossing street-stop. Other drivers might not stop, but they’re breaking the law. I also pause a little after, say , the first emergency vehicle passes to make sure it’s the only one. (Could have multiple fire trucks, for example.)
Laurence Norah says
Hey Cecilia – great tip, thanks for sharing! It’s something we always do as well 🙂
FRANCIS McG says
Thanks! Just been driving from New York to Boston and this has really helped. I had no idea what was going on at stop signs yesterday and kept waiting but got frustrated by other cars taking off. Appreciate this!
Laurence Norah says
Our pleasure – glad we could help! I can agree, coming from the UK myself there were quite few things like the STOP signs and turning on a red signal that took a bit of getting used to!
Great stuff! FYI, many states still number highway exits sequentially rather than by distance.
Also, keep in mind that distance numbering is fixed from one state border, ie it’s not Exit 20 on northbound and Exit 80 southbound in a 100 mile wide state. Having driven throughout North America for 30+ years, I’ve never noticed a consistent pattern by state or province.
Laurence Norah says
Hey Andre! Thanks very much, I did not know that. I will update the post accordingly 🙂
No problem. I live in New England where you will often find Exit 2A, Exit 2B and Exit 2C right after another because they added roads that weren’t accounted for in original numbering system. Also, locals can be very particular about saying something like “get off at Exit 11, then turn right” – no mention of intersecting highway, distance, town, etc.
You could also mention the US Highway system, eg Route 66 is one, that maintain number designation across state lines. They vary between two laned roads to multiple lane limited access freeways. The famous/notorious 101 in LA is also a US Highway.!
Laurence Norah says
Wow, thanks for all that 🙂
Andrew Hill says
hi Laurence & Jessica – what a really helpful website! My partner and I are planning a road trip in the South next month! As always, we’re leaving it a little late to get organised. We fly in from London to Austin on December 1, then need to fly up to visit friends in Detroit on December 19, before then flying over to New York and getting a red eye flight back to London on 23/24 December in time for Christmas! Our current idea is to spend some time in Austin, then rent a car and drive east, finishing somewhere like Charleston on December 18. So, we would have maybe 14 or 15 days on the road. Your website has already given us lots of ideas of places to stop along the way. A couple of practical questions first: the ‘one way’ fee on rental cars seems like it can be steep (basically doubling the cost). Have you had the best experience with Enterprise? A friend last night said he hired a car in Austin but was then told he couldn’t take it over the border into Louisiana, so had to park the first car, hire a second to go to New Orleans, then come back to pick up car 1. Have you heard of that happening before? That seems like a big faff we would rather avoid! I expect I may have lots more questions, but there’s a couple to start with… Many thanks in advance, Andy & Charlie
Laurence Norah says
So we have hired cars and driven across states multiple times and never had a problem, but some rental firms might charge a fee for that. I’ve never heard of the requirement to change cars though.
In terms of the one-way fee, it’s usually pretty steep, generally in the range of $200 – $300. We have nearly always used Enterprise, although I will say that on our most recent trip to the USA, where we also picked up a car in Austin, we used Hertz, which was great value and even included full insurance for less than the price of the other providers. So it is definitely worth shopping around. Just make sure that you get unlimited mileage and are aware of what any insurance covers and doesn’t cover.
I hope this helps!
Thanks so much for your post. Very helpful tips for me.
Laurence Norah says
Our pleasure 😀
Great tips! Especially the one about the exits, I had no idea about that as well. The other thing you are (surprisingly) allowed to do (where not forbidden) is to do U-Turns. I found this very shocking the first time I drove in the US and I still avoid to do that unless it becomes really convenient.
Laurence Norah says
Thanks Leo! That’s a good point about the U-turns, that is quite a surprising thing if you’re not used to it, but quite a handy way to turn around 😉
John Moores says
A really informative post, great refresher even though I have previously driven in the States. Great job!
Laurence Norah says
Thanks very much John 🙂
Akhil & Taruna says
Thank you guys. We are shifting to US, and were looking for exactly the information and tips that you have provided in your blog. It is very informative and comprehensive. Even before sitting behind the wheels, I am feeling confident now that we will be able to handle the driving in US.
Cheers… keep blogging!!!
Laurence Norah says
Thanks for letting us know! Always great to have positive feedback 😀 We hope your move to the US goes well!
Thanks guys. Really useful tips. I’ve hired a mustang for our honeymoon driving from San Fran to Yosemite national park then onto vegas
Stay safe. Cheers
Laurence Norah says
Hey James – our pleasure. That sounds like it’s going to be a fantastic trip – I’ve always wanted to drive a Mustang 😀
Do check out some of our favourite photography spots in Yosemite:
And San Francisco:
For some ideas! Safe travels 😀
Loved your post. It reminds me of the first time when I started (to learn) driving, only to discover that I was awful behind the wheel. A few months at the driving school here in NJ that I finally got my confidence back and my driving license before I finally hit the road. Driving is, truly, a wonderful experience.